As quarantines relax, many urban residents show behavior that belongs to a stage of reopening not yet formally announced by government. In short, flouters adopt “Phase 2” activities in “Phase 1.” Is this a mostly harmless and realistic “cutting edge,” or impatience in the form of reckless abandon? What does this conduct tell us about urban dwellers’ response to change?

Interpretation of public health regulation varies between different generations and cultural traditions. Yesterday showed a daytime version of the scene along Richmond Riverside noted on Wednesday evening: premature group gatherings and disregard of current social distancing guidelines, amid compliant meetings and family outings.

Absent rigorous policing—which has been notably absent in the UK except for the most egregious violations—this compliance inquiry is purely academic. It may only be truly relevant to high-risk populations. But abstraction does not equate with irrelevance, especially when conduct still poses a health risk, or reminds us of those years of immortality that we all lived for at least a little while.

Queuing, not flouting. Business necessity drives compliance?

A few days ago, I suggested based on my earlier writing that these behavioral juxtapositions are noteworthy in their own right. Today, I want to share some thinking from my next book—on sustaining a city’s culture and character—currently awaiting publication.

Heraclitus’s maxim, “the only thing that is constant is change,” has been with us for thousands of years. Although it is trite to say so, times of disruption are invitations to creativity, demanding detailed inquiry and adaptation. Immersion is a gateway to action, and the act of photographing examples of human behavior may be more about the abstract subject matter than the literal portrayals on display. We have not evolved from Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, where a compendium of dramatic visuals focused on impoverished living conditions made a difference to social reform.

At its most extreme, sustaining culture and character in evolving urban places means bringing attention to imminent threats to survival, and forcing decision-makers and otherwise detached stakeholders to confront them. This sort of fact pattern is dire and dramatic, extending far beyond a threatened landmark building, or the evolutionary death of the typewriter or the landline. It occurs when day-to-day subsistence is jeopardized by catastrophes, such as 2020’s unprecedented manifestations of climate change or the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We don’t yet know if flouting behavior shown in the first image is an imminent threat, mere impatience, or a mere bellwether of the next stage of reopening. But it is worth noting to force deeper thought on how to affect meaningful change in a very unfamiliar time.

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